Death of Salvador Vargas (61) Enrages Community, Elicits Immediate Government Action to Close Fatal Prisons in ICE Detention System

For Immediate Release: 
Friday, April 7, 2023

Georgia, USA — Less than a month after a man died at an immigration detention facility in California, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced yesterday that Salvador Vargas, a 61-year-old man of Mexican descent, died in their custody on April 4th. Immediately before Mr. Vargas's hospitalization, ICE was detaining him at the Stewart Detention Center (Stewart) in Lumpkin, Georgia, one of the largest and deadliest ICE detention centers in the country.

Stewart, a remote prison with a bed capacity of 2,016, has been the site of at least 10 other ICE custody deaths. Mr. Vargas’s death is not an anomaly. In just 20 years, over 200 people have died in ICE custody, with at least 10 occurring under the current Biden administration. The immigration detention system is undeniably dangerous and life-threatening.

Today, organizations including El Refugio, Georgia Detention Watch, Detention Watch Network, Project South, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and Innovation Law Lab have called for an independent investigation into Mr. Vargas’s death, the liberation of all people who remain detained, and swift action by elected officials to close down the Stewart Detention Center permanently.

People detained at the Stewart Detention Center and immigrants’ rights advocates have been exposing inhumane conditions together for over a decade. Documented abuses include inept mental health care, use of solitary confinement, unsanitary conditions, COVID-19 negligence, medical neglect, forced labor, and use of force against people detained. As recently as last summer, women have bravely stepped forward to submit federal complaints about the sexual assaults they experienced at the hands of a Stewart staff member from May 2021 to May 2022. 

Immigrants’ rights advocates responded with the following statements:

Amilcar Valencia, Director of El Refugio, an organization whose mission is to support immigrants and their loved ones at Stewart Detention Center, said:

"We hold in the light the family of Salvador Vargas, and as a community, we mourn this death. It is reprehensible that Mr. Vargas is now the 11th person who died at Stewart Detention Center, and ICE has the audacity to say that "fatalities in ICE custody are exceedingly rare” in their official press release. This is a complete disregard for human dignity. Mr. Vargas's death was preventable. We can not allow human lives to continue to be put at risk; we must end this inhumane and unnecessary detention system." 

Adelina Nicholls, Executive Director Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said:

“Once again, the death of Salvador Vargas under ICE custody reflects the disregard on human rights of all people in detention from ICE and DHS authorities. Our heart goes to the families and the loved ones that have suffered from this aggressive enforcement and we stand in solidarity. We demand to shutdown all Detention Centers and release all detained immigrants.  No more deaths, Free them all. Stewart Detention Center must shutdown!” 

Priyanka Bhatt, Senior Staff Attorney with Project South, said:

“We deeply mourn the loss of Mr. Salvador Vargas and the ten other men who have died at the Stewart Detention Center. It is appalling that Stewart continues to operate despite the track record of human rights abuses including sexual assault, physical and verbal abuse, arbitrary use of solitary confinement, and forced labor occuring at the prison. We are tired of our communities being abused by ICE without any accountability. The responsibility for the deaths of Salvador Vargas, Roberto Medina Martinez, Pedro Gumayagay, Jeancarlo Jimenez, Yulio Castro Garrido, Efrain de la Rosa, Pedro Arriago-Santoya, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, Jose Freddy Guillen-Vega, Cipriano Chavéz Alvarez, Felipe Montes lies in the hands of ICE. There is no reforming these violent institutions--Stewart must be shut down.” 

Ariel Prado, Member of Georgia Detention Watch and Program Director at Innovation Law Lab, said:

"While we are devastated that another human being has died in ICE custody, we recognize it as the cruel and predictable outcome of being locked up at the Stewart Detention Center. We spend too much of our time alerting ICE and CoreCivic to the medical abuse they are actively committing against people in their custody to be shocked at this moment. This news is tragic and we are enraged. Salvador Vargas should be alive today. We don't want this detention system, designed to create suffering and death. Salvador Vargas deserved better in the last days of life. People deserve to be free to live their lives with their loved ones. Residents of Stewart County deserve jobs that don't compel them to devalue human lives to make a living. Life is precious and we will continue fighting for a world where it is recognized as such."

Marcela Hernandez, Organizing Director at Detention Watch Network, said:

“People are losing their lives to a detention system that does not need to exist. Any length of time in immigration detention is unacceptable. Our criminal legal and immigration enforcement systems disproportionately target Black and brown people. Unfair laws and policies tie the criminal legal system to detention and deportation. Our current immigration system targets whole groups of people based on the color of their skin and punishes people twice based on where they were born. We demand that the Biden Administration close the Stewart Detention Center and all other immigration detention facilities and release all people from detention immediately.”


El Refugio accompanies immigrants at Stewart Detention Center and their loved ones through hospitality, visitation, support, and advocacy. Visit Follow on Facebook and Instagram @elrefugiostewart and Twitter @elrefugioga. 

Project South is a Southern-based leadership development organization that creates spaces for movement building. We work with communities pushed forward by the struggle– to strengthen leadership and to provide popular political and economic education for personal and social transformation. We build relationships with organizations and networks across the US and global South to inform our local work and to engage in bottom-up movement building for social and economic justice. Visit Follow on Twitter @ProjectSouth.

The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) educates and organizes the Latino community in Georgia to defend and promote their civil and human rights.Our vision is to protect immigrant rights while at the same time empowering our community to take a stand. We know that an engaged community is a powerful community. At GLAHR we are building more than just a moment but a movement. Visit Follow on FB: GLAHR, Twitter @GLAHR_ or Instagram

Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level to end immigration detention. Visit Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.